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Reinke v. Sing Or Why Is Subject Matter Jurisdiction So Hard?

            Maybe it’s family cases. Or maybe it’s because the view on the difference between subject matter jurisdiction and the court’s authority to act has evolved somewhat.  Or maybe it’s that the courts tend not be consistent in their vocabulary, but for whatever reason, courts periodically confuse subject matter jurisdiction with the court’s authority to act.  The distinction matters because subject matter jurisdiction can be raised at any time, can be the basis for a collateral attack on a judgment, and cannot be waived by the parties.  An erroneous exercise of the court’s authority is waivable and not subject to collateral attack. Most recently, our Supreme Court had to explain – again – the difference between the two in the context of post-judgment proceedings in cases involving the dissolution of marriage.

Almost twenty years ago, our Supreme Court in Amodio v. Amodio, 247 Conn. 724 (1999), stated:

Subject matter jurisdiction involves the authority of a court to adjudicate the type of controversy presented by the action before it.  A court does not truly lack subject matter jurisdiction if it has competence to entertain the action before it. . . .  Once it is determined that a tribunal has authority or competence to decide the class of cases to which the action belongs, the issue of subjection matter jurisdiction is resolved in favor of entertaining the action.

Id. at 727-28 (citation and internal quotations omitted).  In plain English, subject matter jurisdictions means:  (a) there is a real dispute and (b) it is the kind of dispute the court can decide.  If either prong is missing, the court should not hear the matter.

            If the court has subject matter jurisdiction, then the question becomes how the court exercises the power it has over the case.  As Amodio put it, “The power of the court to hear and determine, which is implicit in jurisdiction, is not be confused with the way in which that power must be exercised in order to comply with the terms of the statute.”  Id. at 728.  In other words, how a court decides a matter turns on the authority applicable to the case.  Thus, misapplying a statute does not mean the court lacks power to hear the case; rather it erred in the way it exercised its powers. 

            Amodio was a family matter in which the defendant sought and received a downward modification of child support.  Amodio, 247 Conn. at 726-27.  The Appellate Court, sua sponte, determined that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the parties’ separation agreement precluded modification of child support unless the defendant earned more than $900 per week, which had not occurred.  Id. at 727 The Supreme Court reversed, concluding that the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-1 and that the question was whether the court misapplied its authority in exercising that jurisdiction.  Id. at 729-30.

            Despite Amodio’s explanation of the difference between subject matter jurisdiction and the court’s authority to act when it has jurisdiction, courts occasionally confuse the two and the error starts to spread like invasive bamboo until the Supreme Court steps in to clean things up.  Reinke v. Sing, 328 Conn. 376 (2018), is the most recent example of the Supreme Court weeding out bad law in this area.

            The trouble began with Sousa v. Sousa, 157 Conn. App. 587 (2015), rev’d, 322 Conn. 757 (2016).  There, the parties’ separation agreement provided that the defendant would receive alimony for five years and would also receive half the plaintiff’s pension.  Id. at 590-91.  After the plaintiff subsequently told the defendant he would seek to end alimony because of her cohabitation, the parties agreed that alimony would continue so that the defendant could finish her education but she would give up her claim to his pension.  Id. at 591.  The parties put the stipulation on the record, and the court accepted it.  Id. at 591-92.  Four years later, the defendant filed to motions to open and vacate the judgment, the first claiming fraud, and the second claiming lack of jurisdiction to modify the prior order approving the parties’ stipulation.  Id. at 592-93.  The trial court denied both motions.  Id. at 593. 

            The Appellate Court held that the trial court should have granted the second motion to modify as the court, in its view, lacked “jurisdiction” to accept the parties’ stipulation modifying their agreement.  Id. at 595.  The court reasoned: (a) Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-81 authorizes a court to divide marital assets at the time of dissolution; (b) Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-86(a), which authorizes modifications of alimony and child support, expressly prohibits post-judgment modifications of property orders; (c) property orders may only be modified if a party files a motion to open within four months of the judgment; (d) the pension division was a property order; (e) the stipulation modified the pension award was filed outside the four month period; ergo, the court “acted outside the jurisdictional authority under § 46b-86(a).”  Id. at 595-96. 

           Using control-f and searching for Amodio will yield zero results in Sousa.  Worse, the Appellate Court followed its decision in Sousa in Forgione v. Forgione, 162 Conn. App. 1 (2015), cert. denied, 320 Conn. 920 (2016), and Reinke v. Sing, 162 Conn. App. 674, 677 (2016), rev’d, 328 Conn. 376 (2018).  In Forgione, the parties stipulated to opening the judgment and have the court issue new financial orders, which it did.  Id. at 2.  The defendant then appealed, and the Appellate Court reversed, holding that in the absence of a finding or concession of fraud, the court had no subject matter jurisdiction to open the judgment as to the marital assets.  Id. at 3

             The Appellate Court’s decision in Sousa and its progeny had the potential to cause serious mischief in family cases.  First, requiring that any motion to open and modify be filed within four months of judgment would seriously compromise the ability to settle family appeals.  Normally, during the appeal process there is a pre-argument conference, the main object of which is to settle the case.  To the extent the parties would agree to different property orders to accomplish settlement, they would need to move to open and modify within four months of the judgment.  But frequently PACs are scheduled five or six months after judgment when it would be too late under Sousa to modify property awards in the absence of fraud.  The Sousa rule would also prevent parties from agreeing to modify awards later on when issues arise.

             Fortunately, the Supreme Court reversed Sousa, although it did not fully address the problem.  Instead, the court held that the defendant’s motion to open and vacate was an improper collateral attack on the earlier order because it was not entirely obvious that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to accept the stipulation.  322 Conn. at 780.  The court recognized the conflict in the lower courts on this question and observed that the “issue may well receive clarification in the near future,” noting the issues granting in the certification order for Reinke.  322 Conn. at 779-80 & n.16.  (The court cited W. Horton & K. Bartschi, 2015 Appellate Review, 89 Conn. B.J. 172, 190 (2016), among other authority discussing this confused state of affairs).

             Finally, on March 13, 2018, the Supreme Court released its decision in Reinke.  In Reinke, the parties’ separation agreement was incorporated into the judgment.  328 Conn. at 379.  The plaintiff moved to open on the basis of fraud, and the trial court “opened the judgment by oral agreement of both parties, without a finding of fraud.”  Id. (internal quotations omitted).  As it turned out, the defendant had underreported his finances, and the court made adjustments to the financial orders. Id. at 379-80.  The trial court explained in articulation that it made no finding of fraud when it opened the judgment and concluded that the plaintiff failed to prove fraud based on the evidence presented.  Id. at 380. Following Forgione, the Appellate Court held that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction and reversed.  Id. at 381.

             In reversing the Appellate Court decision, the Supreme Court reviewed the distinction between subject matter jurisdiction and the court’s authority to act as explained in Amodio.  The court then stated:

In light of the reasoning in Amodio, it is apparent that the trial court in the present case had the authority to entertain and determine the plaintiff’s claim seeking a modification of the dissolution judgment.  That authority derived not only from the court’s plenary and general subject matter jurisdiction over dissolution actions; see General Statutes § 46b-1; but also from its authority under § 46b-81(a) “[to] assign to either spouse all or any part of the [marital] estate . . . .”

Id. at 390.  The court further held that the trial court had authority to open the judgment more than four months after it entered by virtue of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-212a, which permits opening the judgment where, inter alia, the parties waive the four-month period or otherwise submit to the court’s jurisdiction.  Id. at 390-91.

            As to the questions posed at the beginning, the subject matter/authority confusion may arise in family cases in part because Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-86(a), which provides for modification of periodic alimony and child support, expressly does not apply to property orders made pursuant to § 46b-81.  In Bunche v. Bunche, 180 Conn. 285, 289 (1980), the court stated that § 46b-86(a) “deprives the Superior Court of continuing jurisdiction” over property orders.  (Emphasis added.)  Reinke explained that in context, Bunche was really talking about the court’s authority.  322 Conn. at 392.  But it is easy to see how throwing around the term “jurisdiction” when what the court meant was “authority” could lead a person astray.

            Of course, the astute reader will note that Reinke discussed subject matter jurisdiction in terms of “the authority to entertain and determine the plaintiff’s claim . . . .”  (If this was a high-tech blog, there would be a gif here of Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard with his head in his hand.)  Perhaps if the courts consistently used the term “power” instead of “authority” when they mean jurisdiction, it might help tamp down the confusion a bit.  Just a thought.

            What Reinke does not discuss was that once upon a time subject matter jurisdiction was often seen as defined by statute.  For example, in Broaca v. Broaca, 181 Conn. 463, 466-69 (1980), overruled by Sousa, 322 Conn. at 783, the court held that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to order post-majority child support and such an order could be collaterally attacked because it was void ab initio. Justice Peters dissented, arguing that although the trial court erred by ordering post-majority support (i.e., it erred in exercising its authority), the court had authority generally to make such orders and did not act beyond its jurisdiction.  Id. at 473-74 (Peters, J., dissenting).  By the time the court decided Amodio, Justice Peters’ views as set out in her dissent in Broaca were ascendant.  Amodio, 247 Conn. at 729.  (The court finally delivered the coup de grâce to Broaca in Sousa, 322 Conn. at 783, expressly overruling it.)  While the older view is no longer good law, the cases do not evaporate into the mist and a less-than-thorough legal researcher may stumble across them and decide they support their case without doing the necessary Shepardizing. 

            For now at least, Reinke has cleaned up the jurisprudence and avoided creating difficulties in family cases post-judgment.  Perhaps if parties and courts are more careful in their use of terms when discussing jurisdiction and authority, future judicial mishaps can be avoided.

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